“We never do this.”
That phrase was repeated often in conversations with a dozen top leaders at CAA during the reporting of this week’s Variety cover story.
It’s true. No show business entity understands the value of myth-building more than the talent agency, which exists to broker power from within luxurious fortresses. None of the majors enjoys this image more than CAA, whose Century City headquarters is nicknamed “the Death Star,” based on the planet-destroying space station of “Star Wars.”
In lowering its bridges for a frank, on-the-record conversation about the state of the industry and the agency’s future, CAA’s top lieutenants subsequently revealed what it’s like to work there. Our biggest takeaway? Life inside CAA can be shockingly, refreshingly human.
Here’s a few things we gleaned from conversations with insiders.
Thanks to portrayals in movies like “Swimming With Sharks” and HBO’s “Entourage,” agents are often painted as ruthless mercenaries, ready to sell their mothers to close a big deal and kill the competition. But in groups like CAA’s formidable motion picture and media finance departments, there’s palpable chemistry that is endearing.
CAA Media Finance co-head Roeg Sutherland calls Motion Picture and International Film Group co-head Maha Dakhil his “best friend.” Their relationship has been tested by the separation of coronavirus quarantine.
“It’s hard to kick him under the table when there is no table,” Dakhil confessed of Sutherland.
Sutherland recalled a turbulent moment years ago when he discovered that Dakhil and Joel Lubin, motion picture group co-head, were taking daily trips to a nearby Pinkberry for frozen yogurt.
“After I found out, you have no idea the drama it caused,” Sutherland said, with a wink. The idea that powerbrokers of this ilk engage in lighthearted office squabbles proves their culture extends beyond motivational slang scribbled on white boards.
They do drink some Kool-Aid.
A company as expansive and high-flying as CAA is bound to have its own corporate mantras (not unlike the Netflix crowd and their “north stars” ).
“You can’t outgrow CAA,” was uttered by numerous department heads, including Sutherland, sports marketing whiz Lisa Joseph Metelus and managing partner Bryan Lourd.
The notion that the agency could not accommodate any ambition of a client is laughable to this staff. In conversations with Variety, this slogan came across less as a bragging point and more as a battle cry, but that’s the company line and all must tow it.
They inspire each another.
The cover story describes at length what the agency prizes most — internal communication, the sharing of tips and top-level industry intel that allows CAA to plug clients into projects and keep revenues flowing. But there’s a sense, especially amidst the pandemic, that agents and CAA rely on their coworkers for a lot more.
“Being separated, it gave us a very different and flexible outlook on how we work. If anything, information has passed more easily. Our meetings could be 70 people on any given Wednesday, and now 125 people. That’s been an interesting forced experiment, and it’s working,” said Dakhil.
Natalie Tran, the executive director of the CAA Foundation who has been with the agency since college, said she has “enough friends who have worked in other places to know what kind of bosses one can have. What I’ve learned from them is that you can be an effective leader and a really good person. Richard Lovett calls me out of the blue to see how I’m doing.”
They do work hard at working together
“Collaboration is a fundamental part of how we hold people accountable,” says head of scripted television Joe Cohen. “We don’t talk about the client as ‘my clients.’ They’re ‘our clients.’ The syntax is meaningful. It’s encouraging for people to think about ‘our clients’ because then you are thinking about things you can be doing to get great things to happen. There are subtle and not-so-subtle things we message daily.”
The schedule of internal meetings to facilitate all that communication was formidable even in pre-COVID times. “We are working on agendas days in advance and revising them up until the last minute,” says TV veteran Tiffany Ward.
Now that they’ve entered the Zoom meeting age, Risa Gertner, co-head of the motion picture department, says they may never go back. Her department’s meetings were already spilling out of CAA’s conference rooms. A recent session had some 220 people on the call.
“We could never accommodate all the people and the energy in that (conference) room,” Gertner says. “It makes it easier for people to come in and out. I’m not sure we’ll ever go back.”
They are still agents, after all.
As feverishly as the agency beats the drum of its culture, it is not an all-hands Kumbaya singalong. Lourd freely admits the culture and the intensity of the job is not for everyone.
“The weekly staff meetings are sacred, and you have to share information,” said one former CAA employee who remains a top talent broker. “Those that don’t usually get weeded out of the agency, especially in the talent department.”